By Jeff White (email@example.com)
PHILADELPHIA — It was dusk when the plane carrying the University of Virginia men’s basketball team landed Sunday evening, and the tarmac at Charlottesville Albemarle Airport was wet with rain.
The setting could have been brighter, but the Cavaliers were not despondent. If this was not a triumphant return — the 12th-ranked Wahoos lost 61-59 to top-ranked Villanova on a tip-in as time expired that afternoon — they came away from the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia with their perspective intact.
“We’ve got a whole lot of ball to play,” senior point guard London Perrantes said.
“Guys might be down right now, but we’re fine,” junior forward Isaiah Wilkins said. “We’ll go back out, we’ll get ready for Virginia Tech on Wednesday, and we’ll keep pushing.”
The last-second loss to the reigning NCAA champion Wildcats (20-2) ended a 10-game stretch in which Virginia (16-4) played on the road seven times. Ten regular-season games remain for UVA — all against ACC foes — and six of them will be at John Paul Jones Arena, starting Wednesday night, when Virginia Tech comes to town.
At 6-2 in league play, UVA is in second place in the ACC, a half-game behind ninth-ranked North Carolina (19-4, 7-2). Virginia Tech is 16-5 overall and 5-4 in the ACC.
Had the final minutes unfolded differently Sunday, the Cavaliers might well be carrying a six-game winning streak into the first of their two regular-season meetings with the Hokies.
With 2:52 left, a pull-up jump shot by freshman guard Ty Jerome put Virginia ahead 57-55. But the Wildcats answered with four straight points, only to see Jerome strike again, this time on a runner that tied the game at 59-59 with 15.1 seconds left.
The `Hoos were one defensive stop away from overtime. Alas, they didn’t get it. Villanova guard Josh Hart drove and missed a layup attempt in the final seconds, but with Jerome out of position after trying to block Hart’s shot, guard Donte DiVincenzo swooped in from the left side and tipped the ball toward the basket an instant before the buzzer sounded.
It dropped through to give the Wildcats a stirring victory.
“It was an unbelievable basketball game,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “We have so much respect for their team and their program. We were looking forward to this game. We just knew that we would be tested and we knew we were going to come out of this game learning a lot. We got a little lucky at the end.”
The ball did not bounce as favorably for the Cavaliers late in the game. With 1:48 to play and the score 57-57, Perrantes’ 3-point attempt from the right corner went in and out. That’s a shot he’s made countless times this season.
“It felt good coming out of my hands,” said Perrantes, who finished 2 for 11 from the floor. “It looked good, even when it hit the rim. That was kind of my night tonight.”
Another tantalizing miss followed for UVA. With 49 seconds left and the score still 57-57, Jerome’s 3-point attempt from the left wing rattled in and out.
“Those were great looks,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
Jerome said: “I thought both were in.”
The non-conference finale for both teams produced a high-level contest reminiscent of an NCAA tournament game. It drew 20,907 fans — the most ever for a college game in the home of the NBA’s 76ers and the NHL’s Flyers — and the overflow crowd included many Virginia supporters.
“It kind of did feel like a tournament game, just being in an arena like this, but it was more a home game for [Villanova],” Perrantes said, smiling. “It was definitely not a neutral site. But we did have some fans here, which was good to see.
“It was fun. It was a good experience for the young guys, a good experience for all of us. It’s not March, so we’ve got some time to get it together.”
At the half, Virginia led 31-22, and Villanova stars Hart and Kris Jenkins were a combined 0 for 13 from the floor. In the second half, Jenkins was 2 for 2 and Hart was 2 for 4, and all four of those field goals were momentum-changing 3-pointers.
With 7:52 left, Hart’s first trey cut UVA’s lead to 49-42. Jenkins’ first 3-pointer made it 49-45, and his second made it 49-48. Hart’s second trey put `Nova ahead 54-53.
“We knew that at some point they were going to start making shots,” Perrantes said. “Obviously it just happened at the wrong time, but they’re a good team, so there was no way that we were just going to shut them out completely.”
Bennett said: “You can only keep shooters like that at bay for so long.”
Virginia, which led by 13 with 13 minutes left, turned the ball over six times in the second half, and Villanova turned those mistakes into 11 points. The Wildcats, with 10 fast-break points, became only the second team this season to hit double figures in that category against UVA.
“I think we kind of let them get going when we had some turnovers that led to some transition buckets, and then they got to the line,” Bennett said.
“They’re hard to keep out of the lane. They started to get in the paint on us, because they’re so lethal with that outside shot you’ve got to press up on them [on the perimeter].”
Villanova fans howled with outrage every time a Wildcat was called for a foul. It didn’t happen often. Virginia was whistled for 18 personal fouls; Villanova, for only eight.
The Wildcats shot 24 free throws (and made 20). UVA was 3 for 3 from the line. With 3:32 to play, Perrantes scored on a drive on which he thought he was fouled, but nothing was called. He ran back up the court shaking his head.
“I’m not going to say anything about that,” Perrantes said later when asked about the free-throw discrepancy. “It’s just the way the game is played. Sometimes you get calls, sometimes you don’t. You’ve got to fight through it. We fought through it to the end and just came up short.”
Jerome, who was 3 for 6 from beyond the arc, led the Cavaliers with 15 points in 24 minutes off the bench. He appeared unflappable throughout and scored all six of his second-half points in the final 4:25 of a pressure-packed game.
“He stepped up and played beyond his freshman status,” Bennett said.
Perrantes said: “He made big plays all game and kept us going. He played huge for us.”
For the 6-5 Jerome, this was his second straight gem. In Virginia’s win Tuesday night at No. 14 Notre Dame, he scored eight points, then a career high.
“Every day in practice my confidence builds,” Jerome said, “going against, I think, the best point guard in the country in London. I haven’t seen one better yet, and I’m going against him every day. That’s where my confidence comes from.”
Also scoring in double figures for Virginia were junior guard Marial Shayok (14 points) and Wilkins, who went 6 for 6 from the floor and totaled 12 points, a game-high eight rebounds and two blocked shots.
“He’s such a glue guy,” Bennett said of Wilkins.
A 13-0 run gave Villanova its first lead of the second half, at 50-49. Virginia battled back, but the Wildcats were not to be denied.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” Wilkins said. “We tried to withstand theirs and tried to push one out of our own, and we fought hard. It got down to the last possession, and they made a great play.”
Shayok said: “There are definitely a lot of things we can take from this, a lot of things we can learn from. It’s just a good little reminder that when we’re right we can play with the best of them, regardless of the rankings.”
Like Villanova, Virginia Tech likes to spread the floor with four and, occasionally, five perimeter players. So Sunday’s game, Bennett said, was excellent preparation for the Cavaliers’ next test.
Facing Villanova “makes you play in a way that’s challenging, and it really keeps you on point defensively,” Bennett said.
“Again, it was a great atmosphere and we had our chances and we’ll grow from it. I hope it was good for both of us. I wish we could have come away with a win, but it’s the middle of the season … hopefully it’ll be good for us down the stretch.”